If you made a checklist of everything stereotypically associated with Woody Allen movies and then converted that checklist into a screenplay, you’d get something that looks a lot like Melinda and Melinda. Although it’s not as good of a movie, it’s an equally accurate distillation of the Woody Allen ethos as Manhattan or Hannah and her Sisters. It tells melodramatic, inter-connected stories about rich Manhattanite artists going to therapy and falling in and out of love with each other while talking endlessly about themselves and name-dropping philosophers and classical musicians. It even has all your standard Woody Allen stock players: a jokey, stammering “Woody Allen type,” a beautiful, unstable woman, a quirky, lovable flake, a mysterious, too-perfect man and a cold, manipulative bitch. And, of course, it has a bunch of soothing jazz songs you’ll recognize from Allen movies past.
Melinda and Melinda doesn’t have an original bone in its body, but at this point, I’m willing to dismiss that as a minor criticism. It’s funny, entertaining and competently filmed, which is enough to easily make it Allen’s best film of the decade so far. This is the kind of movie that would drive a Woody-hater crazy, but if Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors are among your all-time favorite movies, Melinda and Melinda will go down nice and easy — like a mediocre, mid-season episode of your favorite TV show.
The movie opens with two playwrights — played by Wallace Shawn (in his 5th Woody Allen movie) and Larry Pine (in his 3rd) — sitting in a diner trying to decide whether life is intrinsically comic or tragic. It’s a pretty silly question you’d think two established writers would have already realized has no simple answer, but nevermind. A third dinner party guest tells a story about a suicidal woman named Melinda who unexpectedly crashes a dinner party and Pine and Shawn try to prop-up their respective arguments by each coming up with their own version of Melinda’s story — one is funny, one is serious. Melinda and Melinda consists of these two stories being acted out.
If that seems like an original concept, remember that Woody Allen has been juxtaposing comedy and drama for 30 years. Hannah and her Sisters, and even more-so Crimes and Misdemeanors, did pretty much the exact same thing — tell one funny story and one serious story, and cut between the two. Those films just didn’t feel the need to announce the premise so insistently.
Some reviews called Melinda and Melinda “two movies in one,” although that’s a bit of a misnomer. By that logic, Crimes was also two movies, and Hannah was at least 2.5 if not three. As for movies like Short Cuts or Magnolia, well, I don’t know, but they must be at least five or six movies in one if you follow the same mathematical principle.
So anyway, both stories start with Melinda stumbling into a dinner party. In the serious one, she’s the college friend of one of the hosts, fresh out of jail, and looking for a place to stay. In the funny one, she lives downstairs and has just tried to commit suicide. At this point, I was inclined to agree with Larry Pine: both of these stories are pretty tragic, and neither of them are all that funny.
But, sage homunculus that he is, Wallace Shawn’s comedy rebounds and soon becomes the more engaging of the two stories. Funny Melinda is able to laugh off her suicide attempt and eventually her friends just chalk it up to her delightfully quirky personality. Serious Melinda, on the other hand, continues to spiral downward into a pit of despair.
Both Melindas are played by then-unknown — and pretty much still-unknown — actress Radha Mitchell, whose top two “Known For” IMDb credits are Vin Diesel vehicle Pitch Black and video game adaptation Silent Hill. Allen has a history of turning previously unknown actors into big, deserved stars, but Mitchell is one of his more disappointing finds. She’s hopelessly bland despite being given an acting showcase that an up-and-comer would drool over — she gets to be both a histrionic basket-case and a quirky love interest (or, in Woody Allen terms, she gets the Judy Davis role and the Diane Keaton role). She’s not awful, but she fails to inject either Melinda with the personality she needs. Despite spending a whole movie with two of her, I’m not sure if I’d recognize her were I to walk past her on the street tomorrow morning.
Fortunately, Mitchell is buoyed by one of Allen’s best supporting casts in years. Serious Melinda’s college friend, Laurel, is played by Chloë Sevigny, who has a sad, moody edge that Mitchell should’ve borrowed, while her love interest is a pianist with the unfortunate name of Ellis Moonsong, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. As the handsome, successful, endlessly patient artist with a weak spot for emotionally unstable women, Ejiofor occupies a role previously filled by Sam Waterston, Gene Hackman, Joe Mantegna, Liam Neeson, and then Joe Mantegna again.
Ejiofor has the smooth, semi-winking charisma to match his character’s cheesy name. Like Neeson in Husbands and Wives, he seems like a character from a romance novel written for hyper-literate housewives. He’s also a little more confident and self-assured than most of Allen’s sad-sack nice guys, who typically end up getting eaten alive by vicious women.
Melinda and Ellis Moonsong fall in love, of course, but soon Laurel (Sevigny) develops feelings for Mr. Moonsong as well, and their relationship turns into a love triangle. It ends with Melinda, after ultimately being left for Laurel, trying to kill herself by jumping off Moonsong’s roof. It was announced at the outset that this story was a tragedy, so any hopes for a happy ending would have been pretty foolish.
The “serious” story is amusingly melodramatic: Melinda has two tortured monologues — one in which she tells the story of how she abandoned her family, and another about how she murdered her new lover; it ends, as I said, with a dramatic suicide attempt; the romantic hero’s name is Ellis Moonsong. This half of the movie’s plot could easily be used for an episode of a soap opera, and, in fact, almost certainly has.
The serious half of the movie is, as far as I can tell, devoid of insight, but that’s not to say it isn’t fun. It’s entertaining in the same superficial sort of way soap operas might be, if they were made about more interesting, intelligent people.
The funny story is even better, and presents an equally, but differently, charming love interest for Melinda with Hobie, an unemployed actor played by Will Ferrell. Ferrell is probably the most vibrant comic presence to show up in a Woody Allen movie since Peter Sellers 39 years earlier. Many actors, like Sean Penn or Jeff Daniels, scored big laughs with the help of strong screenplays, but Ferrell, like Sellers, is capable of making even the weakest or non-existent material funny. In the film’s opening scene, I was already laughing at the way he indignantly shouts “Chilean Sea Bass!” while making dinner.
Ferrell captures the nervous, desperate-but-hopeful manner of the Woody persona infinitely better than Jason Biggs, and arguably does a better job than Woody Allen himself has for many years. His towering frame also makes the meekness and secret anger that are inherent in all Woody-like characters even funnier. Ferrell would make a good Danny Rose, or for that matter, a good David Dobel.
There are two screwball-like set-pieces, both involving Will Ferrell, that are straight out of Allen’s ‘70s comedies. The first involves Hobie spying on Melinda and her new boyfriend and getting his robe caught in the door, and the other — the comic equivalent of the Moonsong/Melinda rooftop suicide attempt — involves a sultry Playboy model who seduces Hobie but, at the last moment, decides to jump out the window rather than follow through on the seduction. They’re a much-needed reminder that, when it comes to physical comedy, Allen may have lost his touch as an actor, but his senses as a director are still sharp.
The comic story ends with Hobie and Melinda falling in love and living happily ever after. But before that can happen, Hobie has to dump his wife Susan (Amanda Peet), who is, even more-so than Amanda in Anything Else, another one of Allen’s “castrating Zionists.” She’s literally in the midst of directing a movie called The Castration Sinata with an all-female cast. She makes Hobie’s decision a bit easier by cheating on him with her producer.
The comedy half might be better, but Melinda and Melinda’s premise gives it an unfair advantage. We see the melodramatic version of a scene, and when the “funny” version comes along, it feels relieving and cathartic. It’s funny before it even starts because the drama is so overwrought, we’re already primed to laugh at it. The tragic half, on the other hand, is burdened by the comedy, whose silliness bleeds into it. It’s hard to take Melinda’s tearful suicide seriously when it’s intercut with Will Ferrell falling down the stairs.
The premise announces that the movie’s characters aren’t real people, but rather a representation of a dramatic exercise. This doesn’t hurt the comedy, as we don’t need to care as much about people to laugh at them, but it’s poisonous to the tragedy. It’s hard enough to elicit real feelings for movie characters, and harder still when the stakes are lowered so dramatically right off the bat — after all, it doesn’t really matter what happens to Melinda or Ellis Moonsong, as they’re just parts of Larry Pine’s made-up story.
All that said, I did enjoy the moments with Pine and Shawn. I’ve always liked the idea of the Frame Story — see, for a better example, Broadway Danny Rose. In this situation, I think it would have worked better if both stories had been comedies, each story starting the same way, but Pine and Shawn competing to take it in better, funnier directions.
On paper, it might seem like the movie is tackling major questions about the nature of life, but it is doing no such thing. What it does prove is that anything — suicide, depression, infidelity — can be both serious and funny, although artists have been proving and re-proving that point for a few thousand years now.
The real lesson to be learned from Melinda and Melinda is that Woody Allen is more comedically gifted than dramatically gifted, but I think we knew that already. The other lesson is that a Woody Allen movie can be unoriginal, by-the-numbers, and predictable, but still pretty fun.
- “Last time we slept together, Susan just lay there staring into the darkness like her parents had been killed in a fire.”
- “We don’t communicate anymore.”
“Sure we do. Now can we not talk about it?”
- “What do you do for exercise?”
“An occasional anxiety attack.”
- I watched this movie for the second time about a week ago, but this morning, while I was skimming through it again, I noticed something very strange I’d never noticed before: in the beginning of the movie, it’s Larry Pine who’s arguing in favor of comedy, and Wallace Shawn who’s arguing in favor of tragedy. At some point, and I’m not sure how or why, they switch arguments. Is it possible Allen got confused during the writing/filming, or was this deliberate?
- Winona Ryder was originally cast as the title characters and Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Hobie (Will Ferrell’s role). In both cases, they were let go at the last minute because the budget could not cover the cost of insuring them. Not sure how exactly that works, but I’m guessing the fact that they were both in the midst of scandals at the time didn’t help. Ryder, I think, would have been a marked improvement as both Melinda and Melinda. As for Downey, it’s hard to envision how that would have panned out, but it certainly would have been interesting.
- Woody Allen had filmed every movie since 1975’s Love and Death at least partially in New York, but Melinda and Melinda is the last of his movies to be filmed there until 2009’s Whatever Works, and his second-last New York movie ever.
- Their names are never mentioned in the movie, but according to IMDb, Wallace Shawn’s character is named “Sy” and Larry Pine is named “Max.” This reminds of another bit of trivia I posted in an earlier review, about how Allen likes to use short character names, as it means less typing.
- IMDb lists this movie’s year as 2004, but many sources (Amazon, Netflix, iTunes) list it as 2005. Strangely, it was released in Sweden, Italy and Norway in 2004 but not in the US or UK until March of 2005 (just two months before Match Point debuted at Cannes). I haven’t been able to confirm this, but my theory is that it was doomed for a direct-to-DVD release until Will Ferrell’s Anchorman turned him into a big movie star in 2004 and gave Fox Searchlight some hope that maybe they could milk a few more dollars out of it.
- Melinda and Melinda opened at first in just one theatre in New York, where it grossed a staggering $74,238 in its first weekend. It then expanded to 95 theatres where it’s per-theatre average plummeted to $7,795.
- Chiwetel Ejiofor was cast based on his performance in Dirty Pretty Things. Radha Mitchell was cast based on Ten Tiny Love Stories.
- Movie stars in small parts: Steve Carell plays Hobie’s friend Walt, Josh Brolin is a rich dentist who briefly dates funny Melinda, and Johnny Lee Miller is Chloë Sevigny’s drunk husband.